I Walk Imperfectly

A Day of Two Churches

Sun 10 January 2016 |

Today I went to church twice. The experiences were wildly different on the surface, but oddly similar deeper down.

The first can only be called a church with tongue firmly in cheek. It was the St. Judas the Traitor First Ward, which is a weekly ex-mormon meetup. It's held in the upstairs cafe area at the Draper location of Harmon's grocery store. I'd known about it for months, and kept telling myself I should check it out, but it was held at the same time as our LDS ward, which I still attend with my family. With the new year, though, our church moved to 1 PM, and the scheduling conflict was resolved.

The meetup went mostly as I had pictured it. 10-20 people sitting around a couple tables. There was no structure, just talking. A majority of the people there seemed to be about my age (mid/late thirties), plus a smaller but significant group of 50+ people. There were two other first-timers there, and I wonder whether that was typical or exceptional. There was a young man who just returned home from his mission a year ago. There was one guy who goes by Zadok the Priest on Reddit. His online comments alternate between boisterous, snarky, and insightful. The boisterousness came through a bit more in person, I think. Every single one of the attendees was male. I did not expect that.

I spent almost the entire time talking to a surgeon named Craig. He's a year away from retirement, and has been out of the church for over two decades. It was obvious that he was intelligent, and had spent a lot of time rehearsing his arguments against religion. He came on a bit more strongly than I was comfortable with, to be honest. I felt compelled to defend the friends and family who I know have more nuanced views than those he portrayed. I tried to steer the conversation away from polemics by asking about his family, and there I felt it become much more fruitful. He told me that his family was descended from Franklin D. Richards, who was largely responsible for telling the ill-fated Willie and Martin handcart companies to head west despite the late season. He told me about the falling out he had with his sister last year after he pointed out their ancestor's role in that tragedy. I got the impression that he felt hurt and frustrated by his family's avoidance of talking to him about church topics, and that attending the meetup gave him some validation and an opportunity to vent to a sympathetic audience.

I felt some validation myself from attending the meetup. It was helpful to experience an environment where it was not taboo to mention problems or inconsistencies with the church. On the other hand, it felt curiously impolitic to say anything positive about the church. It reminds me of how I voted Democrat when I was in college in Utah, because they seemed like the voice of reason compared to the extreme, overwhelmingly powerful and somewhat corrupt Republicans. Then I moved to California, where it was Republicans who were the voice of reason compared to the extreme, overwhelmingly powerful, and somewhat corrupt Democrats. I always find myself put off by the excesses of the dominant culture. I resent the pressure imposed by the LDS church to conform and avoid even small criticisms or corrections. And I was disappointed to find a similar, though less intense party line at the ex-mormon meetup.

I don't know whether I will go back. Though it was validating to be near people who have had experiences similar to mine, I worry that the lingering vibe of backward-looking bitterness would run counter to my goal of moving forward towards new sources of spiritual fulfillment. That being said, I can understand the bitterness, and I am wary of criticizing anyone's means of processing the church's dishonesty and the personal losses that can come when you acknowledge it. We have all had different upbringings, different church teachings that caused us guilt, shame, or frustration, different paths to learning the truth about the church, and different family responses to our disaffection. For some, the hurt just doesn't stop. My heart goes out to them.

An hour and a half after getting home, I left again to go to church with my family. Sacrament meeting was mostly uneventful, though I did really appreciate one talk that emphasized our promises to mourn with those that mourn, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort. I still cherish those teachings.

Sunday school was frustrating. We are studying the Book of Mormon this year, and this week started at the beginning. The lesson was riddled with little "proofs" like "How could Joseph have known that Egyptian took less space and was easier to engrave than Hebrew?" There's no evidence that the claim is true; that's just assumed. And the obvious problems with the Book of Mormon's historical timeline were of course unmentioned. (According to 2 Kings 24, Jerusalem had already been conquered, its riches looted, and its ruling class carted off to Babylon before Zedekiah became king, and before Lehi supposedly prophesied that "many should perish by the sword, and many should be carried away captive into Babylon." Even mormon scholars struggle to make sense of this timeline.)

But what I really couldn't get out of my head was a quote from Joseph Smith that was on the back of the handout that the teacher distributed in class.

Whatever God requires is right, no matter what it is, although we may not see the reason thereof till long after the events transpire.

It seemed very familiar. I was pretty sure that it came from Joseph Smith's letter to Nancy Rigdon, after she refused to become his polygamous wife. I wondered whether the teacher was aware of this context, and I wondered how disturbed the class would be if they knew that Joseph had said those words in order to convince a woman to become another one of his wives. Here's a bit more from that letter:

Happiness is the object and design of our existence; and will be the end thereof, if we pursue the path that leads to it; and this path is virtue, uprightness, faithfulness, holiness, and keeping all the commandments of God. But we cannot keep all the commandments without first knowing them, and we cannot expect to know all, or more than we now know unless we comply with or keep those we have already received. That which is wrong under one circumstance, may be, and often is, right under another.

God said, "Thou shalt not kill;" at another time He said "Thou shalt utterly destroy." This is the principle on which the government of heaven is conducted—by revelation adapted to the circumstances in which the children of the kingdom are placed. Whatever God requires is right, no matter what it is, although we may not see the reason thereof till long after the events transpire. If we seek first the kingdom of God, all good things will be added. So with Solomon: first he asked wisdom, and God gave it him, and with it every desire of his heart, even things which might be considered abominable to all who understand the order of heaven only in part, but which in reality were right because God gave and sanctioned by special revelation.

The insidious coercion of this quote becomes clear if you consider the office of the speaker. "Whatever God requires is right, no matter what it is," and I am the one to tell you what God requires.

After Sunday school I kissed Sarah goodbye and left to walk home. My way out of the building took me past the door to the primary room, and I heard them singing the song Book of Mormon Stories. I sighed. I had hoped that the church would back away from the claim that native Americans are the Book of Mormon's Lamanites after becoming aware of the lack of DNA evidence to support that claim. It saddens me that they're still teaching that. It saddened me more when I realized that my son was in there, singing it along with them. I consoled myself with the thought that many childhood beliefs are reexamined and reconsidered in adolescence as we learn critical thinking. I plan to have many talks with my sons at that time, to provide the context and facts that the church omits.

I attended two churches today. In both I felt some inspiration or validation. And in both I felt frustration. Getting out and attending the meetup was a milestone for me; it's the first time I've been public about how I feel about the church. In the coming year I plan to visit the Unitarian and Community of Christ churches, and also to spend some Sundays in nature. I am hopeful.